US delivers suspect to a Saudi execution

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The Independent Online

AS SAUDI Arabia continues a frenzy of head-chopping executions, the United States has extradited to the kingdom a man wanted for the 1996 Dhahran bombing which killed 26 people - and who therefore faces almost certain death within a few weeks. The country's "justice" - regularly criticised by the US State Department for its routine denial of access to lawyers and trials which fail to meet any international standards - is likely to send Hani el-Sayegh to death whether or not he protests his innocence.

AS SAUDI Arabia continues a frenzy of head-chopping executions, the United States has extradited to the kingdom a man wanted for the 1996 Dhahran bombing which killed 26 people - and who therefore faces almost certain death within a few weeks. The country's "justice" - regularly criticised by the US State Department for its routine denial of access to lawyers and trials which fail to meet any international standards - is likely to send Hani el-Sayegh to death whether or not he protests his innocence.

MrSayegh's extradition comes in a year that Saudi Arabia has seen a threefold increase in executions. At least 91 people - including three women - have been publicly beheaded in 1999, including foreign nationals from Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Syria, Jordan, Chad, Ethiopia and Yemen. The three women, all Nigerians, had their scarves ritually stripped from their heads before being put to death by the sword in front of crowds of men beside Saudi mosques.

The move by the US raises many questions. The deputy attorney general, Eric Holder, stated last week that Mr Sayegh "was not entitled to remain in this country and that his removal to Saudi Arabia was appropriate". But Washington has never hesitated to try those it believes responsible for the death of US citizens abroad. Since 15 of its servicemen were killed in the Dhahran bombing on 26 June 1996, why did the Justice Department decide that his extradition to its richest Arab ally was warranted when - if the case was so strong - it did not have the evidence to try him in America?

The campaign group Amnesty International has several times protested against Mr Sayegh's extradition, pointing out that beatings, torture and execution are a part of Saudi Arabia's judicial system. Even more disturbing are reports that Mr Sayegh - after an earlier extradition to the United States from Canada - had been promised a guarantee of his non-extradition in return for his co-operation in the bombing investigation.

Whether or not he is guilty, his execution would risk provoking retaliation from Islamists such as Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident whom Washington has accused of the Dhahran killings and an earlier bombing of US military personnel in Riyadh. Any such revenge attack would, of course, be attributed to "international terrorism".

A Washington court had turned down Mr Sayegh's petition for political asylum on the grounds that the affair was outside its jurisdiction. The Americans say they have received assurances from the Saudi government that he will not be tortured - essential to secure an extradition - but no assurance, apparently, that he will not have his head cut off at a public execution. The Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Naef bin Abdul-Aziz, has warmly thanked Washington for "its favourable response to our [extradition] request".

The latest woman to be beheaded in the kingdom was Safira Ounbiyi Salami, of Nigeria, who was accused of drug trafficking. Alleged drugs offenders are routinely executed, although human-rights groups suspect that the accusations are used to cover up personal disputes or against foreigners to hide crimes committed by nationals. On 4 October, a Saudi identified as Ali Bin Suhaym Bin Hassan al-Shihri was beheaded in Dammam, 10 miles from Dhahran. In September alone, according to Amnesty, 19 people were put to death, compared with 29 in all of 1998.

Ironically, one of the most eloquent defenders of the barbarous practice of public execution by the sword is the Saudi poet, writer and ambassador to London, Ghazi al-Ghosaibi. Mr Ghosaibi is now a candidate for the post of director-general of the United Nations organisation Unesco, in Paris.

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